Martin's marker: UVA heralds its most celebrated former slave

A new book may be calling out the cruelty of the plantation masters, but one former Monticello resident is getting some decidedly positive publicity this fall.

Henry Martin was reportedly born into slavery on the day that Thomas Jefferson died and went to work at the University of Virginia as an enslaved janitor. He would later win his freedom– as well as the affection of generations of faculty and students– in his long-running role as UVA's bell-ringer.

Over the last summer break, 102 years after he retired, Martin was commemorated with a plaque embedded in a sidewalk on the historic Grounds. UVA officials say the marker– located outside of one of his ringing places, the University Chapel– becomes the first permanent monument celebrating one of UVA's enslaved workers by name.

The funding for the plaque came largely from John and Trula Wright, who heard about Martin after they'd already agreed to sponsor a new sound system for the Chapel. "When we found out he rang the bell, it just hit our hearts," says John Wright.

The Wrights credit Coy Barefoot, an avid adjunct professor who gives frequent history talks, for highlighting Martin's story.

Barefoot says that in an era before the ubiquity of accurate watches and clocks, Martin's ringing united Charlottesville and that he even helped care for injured soldiers when the Rotunda was repurposed as a hospital during the Civil War. Such contributions help explain, Barefoot says, why Martin's 1915 funeral was the town's biggest since Jefferson's.

"I'd always say if anyone deserves a plaque for a lifetime of service, it's Henry Martin," says Barefoot. "Mrs. Wright came up after one of my talks and said, 'Let's make it happen.'"

1 comment

New "sound system"?

Blech. Replace the PA speakers with actual bells, whether by restoring those (still?) there or buying equipment.. You know, bells that ring: